Numerous tests claiming to predict a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease years in advance are emerging from research around the world. Some of them rely on blood markers observed from a blood sample while others use technology that identifies minute delays in spoken word patterns. Still others use artificial intelligence that calculates risk based on cognitive assessment.
We’ve told you about many of these memory breakthroughs in recent newsletter issues. Today here’s another one. This new cognitive assessment is a simple five-minute computer test that warns of Alzheimer’s up to 15 years before symptoms appear.
The company Cognetivity Neurosciences was founded by scientists in 2013 with the aim of improving early diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, diseases which are often not diagnosed at all or the diagnosis is received too late to change the outcome.
The scientists wanted to develop an early warning system – a test that looked at the brain in its entirety, and its connectivity, and would be quick, engaging, and accurate.
The test is called Integrated Cognitive Assessment (ICA) and it could hardly be simpler.
Spot The Animal
The person being assessed looks at a screen and is shown 100 images, one after another. Each image appears for just 100 milliseconds. The participant is asked whether they saw an animal in the picture or not, responding as quickly as possible. If yes, they tap one side of the screen, if no, they tap the other side. It’s as simple as that.
The images engage high-level visual areas of the brain and differ in their complexity, with some having more data for the brain to process. The responses enable researchers to build a profile of the subject.
The reason animals are used is explained by Cognetivity’s commercial director, James Medcalf.
“In evolutionary terms, spotting an animal very quickly was vital for our survival,” he says. “The task involves some of the most basic structures of our brains, such as the amygdala, which helps to regulate our fight-or-flight responses.”
Reaction times are important, explained Mr. Medcalf, because, “in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, it is not memory that gets affected. Research shows instead that it is your brain’s processing speed that starts to slow, and this is what the new test shows.”
AI Comes Into Play
After researchers build the subject’s profile, the next aspect of the analysis involves artificial intelligence.
The AI engine compares reaction time patterns with data gathered from cognitively healthy people to assess a person’s risk of dementia. The scientists can also tweak results to include the lifestyle and medical history of the subject taking the test.
The ICA test has many advantages over current routine cognitive tests. These involve substantial clinic time, are invariably paper-based, education- and language-dependent, results can be improved upon with practice (learning bias), and are limited in their reliability.
ICA overcomes all these limitations.
Lifestyle Changes Make a Difference
Dr. Carol Routledge, Director of Research, Alzheimer’s Research UK, is impressed with the test.
“Cognetivity’s test…has no learning bias…because it’s not a memory test, it’s not a learning test, [but] it does use all those higher structures of the brain,” she says. “It will take diagnosis way back, like five, ten or maybe even 15 years (earlier than standard tests).”
The importance of spotting cognitive problems early on, years before symptoms appear, is explained by Cognetivity’s co-founder and CEO, Dr. Sina Habibi.
“There are lifestyle changes that can have a huge impact on whether the disease becomes full blown,” says Dr. Habibi. “For example, there are dietary-based programs that can help the brain to be healthier, and the number of hours of sleep that a person gets has been proven to have an impact.”
This digital Alzheimer’s assessment platform, developed in the United Kingdom, won two national awards in 2021 and is currently being tested by the National Health Service. It’s also available at clinics operated by Ketamine One in the U.S. and Canada.
In addition to the professional version for doctors to measure the cognitive function of their patients, an iPhone app is available for anyone who wants to monitor their brain function and to identify lifestyle changes that could make a difference. Further information is available at https://cognetivity.com/.